Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Beta/Zeta Dilemma

October and November sketches are scattered between Beta (left) and Zeta (right) (both festooned with some favorite stickers). 

During my first couple years of sketching, I tried nearly every sketchbook on the market, looking for the right fit (you can see a few of them at the top of my Archive of Sketch Kits page). It’s what you must do as a beginner – explore various book formats, paper textures and weights and how they meet your media needs. Then I decided to roll my own using 140-pound Canson XL watercolor paper, and that kept me happy for years with all the media I used.

Last spring, I stopped hand binding my sketchbooks for the first time since 2013, and I’ve been in a mild sketchbook tizzy ever since. At first I thought Stillman & Birn Zeta would be “the one” – a daily-carry I could count on with all media. But during my trip to the Netherlands, I started wavering, and I tried switching to S&B Beta as my daily-carry.
Zeta handles ink and graphite beautifully. . . 

I just finished filling my second consecutive Beta, and it took quite a bit longer to fill than usual – because I kept interrupting it to use Zeta instead! Whenever I was in the mood for graphite or ink (especially during InkTober), I would grab the Zeta as I was going out the door. I don’t like carrying more than one book, but if I was planning to drive, I’d take both books, just in case I changed my mind.

With all that dithering, my sketches from October and November are scattered between two sketchbooks, which annoys me greatly. During most of my sketching experience, my limited media choices enabled nearly complete chronological continuity of my sketchbooks. But now that I use more media, and neither Beta nor Zeta meets all my media needs, I must either compromise on the paper choice or compromise on the continuity.
. . . but I still love Beta best when I want rich, vibrant hues.

At this point, after months of wavering, I’ve concluded that it’s probably more important to have the paper that makes me happy with whatever medium I’m using than it is to have the sketches appear in chronological sequence. All the sketches are dated, so I could easily retrace the chronology if that’s important. But if I used paper that wasn’t right for the medium, I’d probably be less satisfied with whatever sketch resulted. And ultimately, the sketch itself is not nearly as important as the sketching of it, and that gets done no matter what paper I use (or whether it’s in the right sequence). I’ll keep using both books and get over it.

Now, if only Stillman & Birn would make my dreams come true and create a sketchbook containing both Beta and Zeta papers . . . !

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Drawing Jam, Part 2: Not Models

12/7/19 Drawing Jam participants

My focus at Drawing Jam tends to be the costumed models because I don’t have regular opportunities for that elsewhere. But the event is so packed with participants that there’s no shortage of non-posing people, too – many of whom are nearly as still as models as they focus closely on whatever they are drawing.

Live music in every room puts the jammin’ in the Jam, and this year was no exception. Ask Sophie, a band of “traditional folk music, old-time country and rock 'n roll, with a punk rock sensibility,” was one of my favorites. They were hard to sketch, though, because participants drawing models often got in my way.
12/7/19 Ask Sophie

The percussionist in the center, however, had such an interesting beard that I sketched him a second time. He sits on a box with a hole cut into it and uses one hand to drum on its side. (He does have a second leg, but I couldn’t see it.)

12/7/19 Ask Sophie percussionist

Monday, December 9, 2019

Drawing Jam, Part 1: Models

12/7/19 Cookie Couture (20-min. pose)
Cannoli (20-min. pose)

I know I just got through saying I’ve been jonesin’ for life-drawing practice while Gage Academy is on winter break. But one reason Gage takes that break is to put on Drawing Jam, the school’s annual day-long participative art extravaganza, which I look forward to all year. Saturday was my eighth consecutive year taking part in the Jam (now in its 20th year), which offers nude and costumed models to draw and sculpt, areas for still life and self-portrait practice, demos by Gage instructors, activities for kids, live music to draw by, and free art supplies donated by Blick. Guess what? I got my fix!

Since I sketch nude models during regular sessions but rarely have a chance to draw them in costume, I focused my attention on the latter. I was also in the mood to try some new materials that I don’t usually take to life drawing. I’m currently working on reviews of fountain pen inks for the Well-Appointed Desk, so Drawing Jam gave me an opportunity to use those inks in unusual ways.

Two models sketched in 1 minute
First I filled several waterbrushes with fountain pen inks. This tool is not new to me; I first started using it years ago during the long transition between being frustrated with watercolors and trying to find something else that worked better for me. I remembered the fast, deliciously juicy applications of ink I could get with waterbrushes, and I knew they’d be fun to use during short poses. For the ink reviews, I had also filled a couple of hacked Pilot Parallel fountain pens, so I grabbed these for Drawing Jam, too.

I tried using the waterbrushes and pens individually during the shortest poses, but the real fun started during the five- and 10-minute poses. First I captured the general gesture loosely and broadly with an ink-filled waterbrush. Then with a Pilot Parallel containing a contrasting color ink, I went back into the gesture to emphasize shadows and fill in a few details. Sometimes I used a water-filled brush to spread the inks further and bring out the light. So much fun! I’m definitely going to bring these tools to regular life-drawing practice when it starts up again.

Two models sketched in 1 minute
Ink-filled waterbrush and a hacked Pilot Parallel!

10-min. pose
10-min. pose

5-min. pose
5-min. pose

During 10- and 20-minute poses, I also used my favorite watercolor pencils to work on tighter drawings. With nude models, color isn’t very important, so I hardly even think about it. With costumed models, though, it was a lot of fun using full color for a change.

10-min. pose

10-min. pose

20-min. pose

Most fun of all was drawing drag queens Cookie Couture (top of page, whom I’ve enjoyed sketching at previous Drawing Jams), Mercury Divine and Cannoli (top of page) – their bright outfits were a treat.

Mercury Divine (20-min. pose)
Thank you, Blick and Gage, for the free art supplies!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Practicing People of the 21st Century

I’ve been jonesin’ for life-drawing practice while Gage Academy is on its long winter break. I try to sketch real-life people whenever I can, but I want a way to practice from home, too. Encouraged by the fun I had sketching from a newspaper photo a few weeks ago, even though I generally avoid it, I decided it wouldn’t be so bad to resort to working from photos if I use the images only as gestures. In other words, I’m not trying to reproduce the photos; I’m viewing them as short poses.

I remembered a book I got a few years ago after Ed Harker showed how he was using it to practice drawing people: People of the 21st Century, by Hans Eijkelboom. This fascinating book is a collection of photos taken by Eijkelboom from the ‘90s into the current decade – thousands of people that the photographer has captured on urban streets, mostly in the Netherlands but also elsewhere in Europe, Asia and North America. What makes the book visually interesting is that he has arranged each page into a grid of images based on unifying themes, such as men wearing striped shirts, women wearing pink tanks, people in yellow raincoats, people in blue raincoats, people in fur. Even if you never draw from it, the book is intriguing to look through.

Written by David Carrier, the book’s afterword says (with a quotation from the photographer): “Taken individually, Eijkelboom’s small photographs are as banal as their subjects. He uses repetition to communicate awareness of difference: the closer you look at any page of this book, the more diverse you will find the people who are dressed in similar ways. ‘Everybody has the skills to relate to what is surrounding him,’ he says. But only art shows you how to see clearly this everyday reality, which is right at hand. ‘What is more beautiful,’ he asks, ‘than a human being who tries to be an optimal human?’ He is infatuated with this ordinary world.”

I just flip open to random pages and pretend these people are walking by as I try to capture their poses as quickly as possible. Fun and strangely relaxing!

By the way, this is the way the binding on the book looked when I bought it.

It drove me crazy because it wouldn’t stay open while I was sketching, so I took it to my neighborhood FedEx store. For a few bucks, they chopped off the spine and replaced it with a spiral – best book hack ever.

Saturday, December 7, 2019


12/3/19 Star Line Barber Shop

We had to run an errand together in the same neighborhood where he gets his hair cut, so I decided to tag along to his appointment. His barber is so fast, though, that she was done in minutes – and I was left with a humorously bad sketch! (I think I did better several years ago at the same barber shop.)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Sketch Material Wish List for 2020

How cool would it be if a Stillman & Birn book contained both smooth Zeta
paper and toothy Beta paper -- between the same covers?

If I could have any sketch tool or material I wanted, even those that haven’t been invented yet, what would I ask for? Two years ago I wrote such a wish list – products that I wanted but that didn’t yet exist. Of the six listed items, four have been fulfilled, at least to some degree – not bad at all! Scoring on those items encouraged me to make a new list, and this time I have specific manufacturers in mind, based on what they already do well:
  • Stillman & Birn, my favorite sketchbook manufacturer, makes a Nova Trio edition that contains beige, gray and black toned papers bound together in the same book. I find that I love S&B’s toothy, water-friendly Beta edition with watercolor pencils, but when I’m using graphite, ballpoint and other pens, I prefer smoother Zeta or Epsilon papers. I want S&B to make an edition containing both Beta and Zeta papers in one book! (I’ve heard that Arteza makes a sketchbook with alternating spreads of cold press and hot press papers, but I’m not familiar with the papers myself.)
I bet Mitsubishi would make a dreamy water-soluble pencil!
  • The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni line of graphite pencils is my favorite for drawing, and the Japanese company makes many other luscious graphite pencils – all smooth, dark for their grades, and flawless. Viarco’s ArtGraf is currently my favorite water-soluble graphite for its rich, dark wash, especially in 6B. But I often run into little gritty bits in the core that prevent smooth application, and I have to stop and rub them out on scrap paper before I can continue. I’d love to see Mitsubishi use their extensive graphite know-how and apply it to making a water-soluble version. I bet it would be dreamy!

Caran d'Ache, aren't you embarrassed that I have to
use a Derwent extender on your pencils?
  • I know I’m particularly cranky about this one (I’ve bitched about it often enough, even directly to the company), but I truly believe Caran d’Ache should make both a portable sharpener and a pencil extender that fit its own products! By “products,” I mean, specifically, the Swiss company’s Museum Aquarelles, which are just slightly larger than conventional pencils and therefore don’t fit in many standard-size tools. I’ve resolved both the sharpener and extender issues for myself, but really: Is it too much to ask for adjacent tools that support their own pencils?

  • Derwent’s Drawing Pencils (which, despite their name, are colored pencils, not graphite or charcoal) have long been a favorite at life drawing because of their softness and extra-thick cores, which make them easy to apply quickly in broad, loose strokes. Their only drawback is their narrow color range, which is limited to earthy hues conducive to animals and landscapes. Derwent’s own Coloursoft and a few other colored pencils I’ve tried might be nearly as soft as the Drawing Pencils, but no other colored pencil I know of has a core that thick – which is what I love most about them. I want Derwent to expand the Drawing Pencil color line to include a few natural greens and yellows (which would still qualify as part of a landscapey palette, right?). While we’re at it, let’s throw in a couple more muted reds and blues, too. The addition of just a few more hues would make the whole palette more versatile.
Derwent Drawing Pencils with thick, luscious cores: All I want are a
few more hues!
  • More than a year ago when I reviewed the then-new Derwent Lightfast pencils, I speculated (OK, maybe it was wishful thinking, but it was educated wishful thinking, based on Derwent’s prior actions) the following: “Now that Derwent has introduced a collection clearly intended as a direct competitor to Caran d’Ache’s premier line of traditional colored pencils, what are the chances that the British company intends to introduce an artist quality water-soluble collection to compete with Caran d’Ache’s Museum Aquarelle pencil? As much as I love the Museum Aquarelle palette range, which is sufficient for most of my needs, it has a few holes that I’d like to plug with an equally soft, highly pigmented brand. A girl can dream.” Sadly, my speculation hasn’t (yet) materialized, but a girl can still dream. 

     suppose Derwent would say that its Inktense collection fills that need, but I’ve read about lightfast test results indicating that the pigments fade quickly (apparent from all those fugitive reds, purples and bright pinks in the palette), and the company makes no claims that they are artist quality. I think Derwent still has room for a lightfast water-soluble line (even a narrow one) as a complement to its oil-based, artist-quality Lightfast line.

 What’s on your wish list – products that you know a manufacturer would do well with if it made them?

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Monochrome Mood

12/2/19 Trees through my studio window

Once the weather goes cold and dark, I find myself drifting more and more in the monochrome direction. Color can always be found, any time of year, if I look hard enough. But I think it’s more about my own mood than about the physical world. Winter is a more contemplative, introspective season (at least for me), and sketching with one color (or one implement) keeps the focus on values, shapes and form instead of hues.

11/4/19 Starbucks

11/24/19 Gourd (I was trying out a new ballpoint pen, and it gave me a lot of trouble:
blobby ink that came out unevenly. Back to my faithful Bic.)
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